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16 Dec 2009

Improving live music - production

Leicester has produced some very fine bands. Leicester's young bands are a great musical asset. Many bands are writing good songs and fine music. The standard is high. But the one area where standards are low – as far as our best bands are concerned – is presentation and stage craft.

Comparing our local bands with the best of those I have seen from the rest of the UK, our local musicians are not doing enough to make their bands into a stage act. More could be done.

Stage performance. Rock music is outstanding because of it's beats, rhythms and compelling melodies. A live gig should be just that “live”. The visual show should have the same degree of life and vitality as the music. If the music reaches out and grabs the audience, then the band members should perform it as if they really mean it; they should live the music. It is after all their music – they wrote it and if they think their music is good enough for an audience to listen to, they should perform the music and bring it alive on stage and this is what the best bands do.

Musicians who stand on the stage like mannequins and play their instruments robotically are not doing their music justice. If the songs have life then they have to be portrayed as having life.

It always great fun to see a young band who can all jump in the air together but this is not a requirement and for some songs this would be out of place. Not all bands need to leap about on stage to make their music work. There has to be an appropriate and realistic sense of stage craft where both singers and musicians project their engagement in the music by the way they move.

The standard of lighting in Leicester's venues varies from disgraceful to banal. The venues have not thought about stage lighting and production, have invested no money on it and have not bothered to keep up with the times. One of two bands have invested in their own stage lighting: laser shows, strobes, projected backing images or movies. But it's rare for a band to turn up with its own set of stage lights. Some covers bands take their own lighting out on show, particularly when they play in non-venues (pubs, church halls). If a band isn't out to be seen there no point in lighting it. It should be the venue's responsibility to light a stage appropriately but in the absence of that happening in a lot of venues, bands might consider investing in a bit of lighting they can take out with them.

Very few bands even think about costume. Musicians wear the same clothes on stage that they wear to work or college; there is no sense of occasion, no sense of performance or showmanship that would lead them to think about what they might wear on the stage to give their act as little bit more visual impact. I am not suggesting that bands suddenly start to invest in exotic costumery. A few bands have, for example, all worn black shirts on stage and in one case black shirts and sparkly ties. I was impressed by Beauty Killed the Beast when they played at the shed and all wore matching outfits – nothing exotic just white shirts, black ties and trousers and black waistcoats. They had honored a musical tradition in this respect about which most bands seem to know nothing and care even less.

People care about the music and its all about the music. But hold on, what is live music about? Why is it that comparatively few people turn out to shows featuring bands playing original music? Could it be perhaps that a lot of people find the whole thing a bit stale and boring? If we were to put some entertainment value into our gigs, would that help to sell more tickets?

It's not necessary to go over the top with this and turn a gig into a pantomime. But with a little more thought about image and styling and stage craft, a band playing on the stage can become something more than just another set of songs being played by just another set of musicians. There is nothing wrong with taking the view that a gig is a form of entertainment.

If people pay money to see a band, surely they (as consumers) have a right to get some value for their £5. They expect a band to (a) sing and play in tune (b) keep in time and (c) perform with a sense of occasion. Too many bands seen to regard a live performance as being just another band practice.

I would like some of our local bands to raise the bar when it comes to entertaining their fans and giving ticket-buyers better value for money. One way to achieve this is to spend a little bit of time thinking about what the band looks like when they play live and what the audience will see on the stage that will enhance their experience of the music and help them to remember a song on the way home. If they can remember a song, their in an increased chance that they might buy it (if its available for sale) or go home and listen to a recording of it (if its free on myspace.)

Psychologists tell us that something becomes remembered if it involves all of our senses working together: our ears, our eyes and even our sense of smell (not something I am advocating other than to say there is something quite distinctive about the smell of a heavy metal gig!!) But if we can combine hearing and seeing into one experiential package then we might be more likely to remember it. Too many gigs are instantly forgettable!

Bands that really want to go somewhere might follow the lead of one or two established bands and begin to at least experiment with these ideas to see if they can make it work in practice.

Of the many people who have seen most of Leicester's bands play live, I for one have been impressed by the wealth of musical talent and ability that we have in this city (and county). I have been able to compare our bands with those in other parts of the UK and I can see that our bands stand comparison to the best that is out there on the UK scene. But I would like to see bands begin to think about “production” - how the music and the experience of LIVE music can be amplified and underscored by production. That is what happens at really big events – festivals and stadiums – but there is no reason why it should not have its (scaled down) equivalent at the other end of the market.

That involves spending some time looking at image, presentation, attitude and stage craft. This is what is lacking in the majority of local bands. They seem not to know anything about it and do not know where to start or what to do. It simply doesn't feature in what we see on our local the stages. I think live music has a strong visual element – people talk about going out to “see a band” and not just to listen to a band. I would like to see bands working on the visual projection of their live act, adding some wow into their performance and making their appearances at shows, memorable and engaging for the audience.

I would like to see bands moving away from just doing yet another gig like all the rest and having more of a sense of occasion when they play. This involves adding an appropriate and reasonable level of theater into the live show. This would backfire if they turned it into a pantomime when it's not the kind of band or music for which that would be appropriate. But approached sensibly I think there is a lot that can be done to improve the presentation of bands in live music.

Production does not need vast amounts of money. It does however require recognition as being a legitimate factor in live music and some time and thought going into how a band can build up the audience's engagement in a gig.

13 Dec 2009

X factor for bands


Each week I have been watching “The X factor” and in some way have learned a bit more about musical entertainment. At the core of this competition is the idea that an act can have an identifiable set of characteristics that marks it out from the rest. It's called the “X Factor” because the “stand out” characteristic is hard to define. If you are someone who works in the music industry and have the right experience (record label scout, top recording artist, band manager, show promoter, etc) you will know it when you see it.


So, are we any closer to defining this mysterious “X factor”? If we pull together what the four judges have said about the acts that have made it through to the finals, there are clues as to their thinking about what characterises this elusive factor. Any act that has what it takes to become a top singing star:

* must be able to project his or her personality into the songs must be able to make a song come alive by living the mood and meaning of what the song is about, fully expressing its emotion; simply being able to sing the song in time and in tune is just karaoke. There are singers that have good voices, who can sing in tune, remember all the words and who can deliver a professional standard of performance but who have been labeled “club singers”, “wedding singers”, etc. Whilst such acts are capable of making a living from singing and can entertain the average crowd they will not get signed to serious record labels and rise to celebrity stardom. These artists do not have the “X factor”, however technical competent they may be.

* Be reasonably good looking. We can all debate what this might mean and point to top singing stars who (in our personal opinions) are not (all that) good to look at. But the judges have frequently referred to the looks of an artist as being part of the package they are seeking. This is far from simple or easy because eye-candy is very variable; it's all very subjective but it seems to be a factor.

* Must be able to conduct themselves between shows in an orderly and professional manner. Ok, let's examine some top music celebrities: Pete Docherty, Amy Winehouse, George Michael, The Gallaghers, etc. What we are seeing here is that newbie, wannabe acts that aspire to stardom must be able to work with their backers, agents and promoters in order to get to the top. Once they are established and are selling thousands of albums and have a huge fan base, they might then behave differently, but on the way up, you have to be compliant. Contestants approaching the final stages of the competition are being coached, dressed, made up, choreographed, mentored and comprehensively groomed by an army of experts. What we have been seeing on the stage is a product of entertainment expertise. None of them could have achieved this on their own. They have ceased to be the “person in the street” and look, act and sing nothing like when they started.

* Must be genuine. Those that have talent but who are weighed down with an agenda have not got into the final stages (this year). However emotionally compelling their agenda might be, the public vote does not always get caught by the hard luck story or the mission of the cause. The public vote can easily evaporate, as we know from political elections. The hard-nosed judging moguls have not been swayed by tear-jerking stories, any more than the majority of the music industry would be.

* Must be able to cope with the huge pressures that this kind of experience places on them. They really have to want it badly to bear the stress and emotional storm and the intense pressure of having to perform at their peak each week.

Does the X factor really tell us anything about how the music industry operates? Does it reveal how the ladder to stardom operates? The TV programme is a machine; it involves massive amounts of money and huge numbers of people. Even if an act fails to make it through to the semi-finals or the final, they can still achieve a huge leap forward in their careers. Agencies are booking up runners-up for shows and appearances, to peform on the club circuits. If these prime time TV competitions had not been invented, some of these artists would have had to have spent years to get anywhere near what the TV show has brought them.

For every successful contestant, there are dozens of others who will have to haul themselves up the ladder of success by their own strenuous efforts, over years and years. The show has discovered a dozen genuinely talented singers out of 10,000 or so applicants, and projected them into the prime-time lime-light and clearly some of them would never have been discovered by any other route.

So, does all this tell us anything about the multitude of talented musical acts that have never even had a chance to get an initial audition: the singer/songwriters, acoustic acts, bands who make their own original music and would rather be dead than attempt to karaoke someone else's songs.

Well I think the TV show confirms what we already knew. The music industry (in the UK) knows what the public wants and is able to select and package it into saleable entertainment products for the mass market.

National band competitions have been attempted but without any great success. They have not attracted much air-time (Orange Act Unsigned appeared on Channel 4). Bands do not seem to hold the attraction of solo singers and groups. Bands have to haul themselves up the ladder by their own boot straps. Some might get discovered at random by talent scouts but this is rare and you cannot depend on it happening.

Good Gigs Rant

In Leicester, it's not about playing at a particular venue, that bookings are about, but finding the right line-up to play in. All the main venues have their good nights and their bad nights. A good night is when a reasonable number of people attend (40+). That can happen at any venue on any day of the week, but only when the line-up is right.

A bad night is where a set of bands fails to draw a crowd and they end up playing to each other. That happens a lot and the sad thing is that it keeps on happening. Someone is making the same mistake over again. It could be the promoter, the venue or the bands or all of them together. But when it does happen everyone looses. So why don't they get it sorted and stop putting on nights that are bound to fail. It would be better if there were less gigs but more good gigs.

8 Nov 2009

What makes a good band?

Since I started my career in live music, I have seen over 3,000 bands play live. Some of them have been good enough to put on the stage of a big arena, some have been worth watching again on the smaller stages and some I have ticked the box and moved on to the next. But I am left wondering, what it is that makes a band stand out from the rest?  In this article I try to pull together the elements that make a band first class.

The music

Because we are talking about bands that play their own music, we have to start with their collective ability to compose good music.  The best bands are those that can turn out musical hits on a regular basis.  Some bands have come up with one good song but have failed to equal it, even though they have produced new songs on a regular basis. What puts a band at the top of the tree, is their ability to turn out great songs, time and time again.  That is true of the really great, world class bands, as it for the unsigned, unknown bands that grace the stages of the small venues.

Having said, that what then are the elements of a good song? Melodies and lyrics. The world's best loved songs have simple melodies that everyone can remember and sing on their way to work or in the shower or at the karaoke. Most of the great popular songs have simple lyrics that are meaningful to most people or that say something that speaks to most of us. Not that rock songs have to be simple or vapid. I prefer rock to pop because rock to my mind is more musically rich and vigorous. The lyrics of  Green Day's "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is not simple; the words are full of captivating visual images and highly ambiguous phrases. One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Don Mclean, wrote lyrics that I have never been able to understand (“American Pie”) but I have been listening to with wonder for many years. The US band Staind wrote song lyrics that completely changed my attitude to rock music and were a revelation to me. “It's been a while” was one of the most emotional and haunting lyrics I have ever come across in rock:

Its been a while
Since I could look at myself straight
and it's been a while
since I said I'm sorry
It's been a while
Since I've seen the way the candles light your face
It's been a while
But I can still remember just the way you taste
But everything I can't remember as fucked up as it may seem
I know it's me I cannot blame this on my father
he did the best he could for me

The early albums of Staind had a profound affect on my attitude to and appreciate of nu-rock.

Lyrics are great if you can read them and they strike you as being poems even if you have not heard the music. They have a quality that is free standing from the music. Some great iconic songs have been based on lyrical material that was far from simple – using metaphor, imagery and iconography to great effect. So, for example,

And all the roads that lead to you were winding
And all the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
I don't know how


might on the face of it seem simple but what does it really mean, if anything? People like this song because they can make of it what they will. There are a million interpretations of it.

Some bands have written totally unintelligible lyrics, following in the footsteps of Lear, but have made them work inside the context of the song (Muse, Led Zeppelin, Bowie). The regurgitating of age old clich├ęs is a big no no for me. I hate songs which refer to persons of the female gender  as “baby” or “babe” and yet our fathers were totally happy with this.

Put together captivating lyrics with memorable melodies and you have a hit. People are going to love it. The melody has to be easy to remember. The rhythm of the song has to do something to our pulses. The lyrics have to be hearable – you have to be able to hear what is being sung about. If the song has a chorus, then it should be iconic – the audience should be singing it on the way home from the show. Sadly few rock vocalists articulate their words clearly enough for most people in a crowd to hear what they are singing. If the same applied to guitar lines, the band would be a flop.

The song should have dynamics – the rise and fall of the mood, the use of catchy phrases and breaks that amplify the flow of the song and tensions that build up to a break. It needs to attract a cross section of music lovers. A good band is one that can play or sing to a wide variety of people and capture their attention, irrespective of their age, sex or cultural background.  Contemporary music is, in my view, too tribal, too limited to one particular group or segment. Much modern music celebrates age, class, gender or race.  It's not the genre or idiom of the music that matters.  It's not about rock versus pop, or pop versus hip hop, or hip hop versus r'n'b. It's about music that can reach across boundaries.

I often ask bands, what comes first:  the melody or the lyrics. I regularly get a “don't know” answer. It is however true that both of these need to fit together. There was a time when lyrics were truly shocking, absurdly trivial and a reflection of the complete inarticulate illiteracy of the songwriters. Some of these are still being sung today and are fondly remembered by fans and music aficionados alike. But modern music lovers are much harder to please than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Today you have to be able to write lyrics that appeal to audiences who are generally well educated, articulate and intelligent.

Entertainment. 

Live music is a form of entertainment. To reach out to an audience, a band has to live its music on the stage, it has to infect the audience with its passion for its music. I have seen bands who play well, from a technical point of view, who make good music, but stand on the stage like cardboard cut-outs. I have listened to bands who have potentially top class songs but for what ever reason they have not come alive. Stage craft is as important as song craft.  It's no good being able to write a great song if you can't perform that song. Bands playing live on stage have a strong visual element. You go to see a band as must as you go to listen to them. Some lead singers have been referred to as great entertainers, because their performance is half an hour of working a crowd. Bad vocalists don't sing to the audience; they sing to themselves, the ceiling, the other band members but they fail to engage the people in front of them. Singing always has an element of acting. Even if you can't see the audience (blinding stage lights in your eyes) you should still act as though you can see them and you know they are there.

Does a band have attitude?  Whether its the attitude of the lead singer or of the whole band, rock bands do sometimes portray something in their act that suggests aggression, cool, petulance and so on. Punk in some of its forms works a recognisable set of attitudes, as does death metal and nu-rock. Some young bands manufacture attitude, throwing their instruments on the stage at the end of the set and storming off the stage but this can easily look very false and contrived.

Originality

Most small bands sound like a bigger band. Bands that are not covers bands or tribute bands, need to play music that is recognisable but not a simply clone of a currently popular big band or one of the greats from the last 20 or 30 years. There are some really good bands out there that have popular appeal, but still sound too much like The Libertines, The Kings of Leon, AC/DC, Green day, Blink 182,  or some other band.  No band can write music in a vacuum. I remember being at a gig where a band played that I had not heard before. Half way through the set, I stood there scratching my head and thinking – I know they are good at what they are doing but I have never heard anything like this before. They are not like anything I have ever heard before. Then the penny dropped.  I realised that I was listening to a band that was truly original. Suddenly, it all became very exciting.  This is not something that happens very often.

If a band really does invent original music, they can find themselves struggling to find people who like it. The sound-alike bands do well because fans easily identify with what they are hearing.  Play something that no one has heard before only the musical sophisticates applaud it.

Team work

This article discusses: “what makes a good band”. There are some acts out there where a star quality front man or woman puts on a truly amazing singing experience but the rest of the people on stage are just backing musicians.  It's all about the lead vocalist.  If the lead singer leaves the band, there is not enough left to go on to success. This is still a band, may be, but what makes a band, as a whole, a first class act?  Teamwork. Firstly let me say that I have a strong opinion about rock bands: in my view the best rock bands have at least three good vocalists. In a standard four piece band I would expect there to be a strong lead singer and at least two backing vocalists. In a trio, all of them have to vocalise.  For me, the top quality rock band is one has adds vocal depth to good instrumental arrangements. Rock bands are, with few exceptions, singing bands.

Some bands put on a really sparkling show because they all work together to make it happen. Even when not singing, a guitarist and even a bassist can be dancing on the stage. The stings section can all jump up at a break in the music. The drummer can put on his own show at the back of the stage. The guitarists can assume postures that are familiar to that style of music. There is so much that instrumentalists can do to turn a band concert into an act which entertains the crowd as much visually as it does aurally.

I have seen bands where there is an amazing front man but where he is backed up by the musicians who sing, dance, play their instruments and create a total package that  makes their set have a special magic.


Appearance

This is difficult.  I can remember when bands during the 1970s tried to out do each other in the costume department and rock became theatrically camp. Today, most rock musicians want to look like they have just walked on to the stage from their day job or their bedroom. Now and then a band wears black shirts.  A band that starts putting on a costume or uniform can be  regarded with suspicion. One or two metal bands wear costumes, a trend set by Korn.

Bands I see on the television playing at huge festivals, have, I guess, chosen their wardrobes carefully with the aim of not looking like they have dressed differently just because they are on stage. They have, I suspect, chosen their jeans and tops carefully to fit with the latest fashions. No big band member wants to look like a nerd. They want to be wearing what all their fans are wearing, or at least the best dressed of them.  Hip Hop and Rap singers seem to have gone in for uniforms big time. They have to be wearing the latest in-clothes to have any chance of getting anywhere.  No matter how badly they perform, they can be sure of getting booked because they are wearing the right stuff. This is tribalism. These artists are buying into an art form which is more about iconography
 than it is about music.

Indie rock artists just need to look ordinary and everyday but even that requires taste. The majority of the bands that I have seen have literally gone on stage in the same clothes they always wear to work or college.  Indie bands do often change their shirts from what they came to the venue in, changing in to something that they imagine is more in keeping what their act.

I have come across bands that have sought the services of a professional stylist, but this rare.

Finally let me say that it is not common to find a group of band member who look the part. Pop moguls have been manufacturing boy groups (singing groups) by picking four or five young men who are all the right height, shape, age and facial cute-ness. They have been manufactured as products for pre-pubertal female consumers. It smacks of musical pornography but some labels have made a lot of money out of it.

When Liverpool four lads happened to come together in the early sixties, they were not manufactured, they just happened. They grew to be one of the greatest musical legends of all time. During the sixties, they happened to be the most iconic youth act imaginable. Yet there were not selected for their looks.

If you read the stories of how most of today's rock bands formed, you see processes at work that are largely about friendships, mates meeting up a college or people being introduced informally because they could play a guitar, drums, bass and so on.  There is never any reference to their appearance. Looks are almost irrelevant when it comes to the formation of young rock bands. If a band happens to have members who look the part, that is likely to be the result of happy co-incidence or maybe, because this particular group of mates all look fairly alike.

Once in a while a band comes along with four people who co-incidentally look the part. They all look right for the style of band and its music. If they are good at all the other elements of a first class band, they are probably going to make it. They are the same age, wear the same style of clothes, have hair styles that match and share common musical tastes. None of this was intentional or planned by managers.

I have seen bands where three of the members look spot on but one stands out like a sore thumb. If that one is the lead vocalist then they are not likely to get very far. The exception to the rule is the drummer – the one who sits at the back and can look like anything because they are hidden away and its doesn't mater that much.  Equally, there are bands with really good looking male drummers who sweat copiously, rip of their T's and suddenly because a key part of the show.

Sex has always been used to sell music. It's either sexy female vocalists who are there to lure male fans or handsome male leads who are there to appeal to anyone who has an eye for male looks. Take That climbed to fame in the gay clubs of Manchester because, at that time, they were all regarded by fans of either gender, as being really good looking guys. They had sex appeal and they they used it to sell their music. Some young bands deliberately get naked on stage because they know that their teenage audiences think them hot enough to get away with this. It's a trap for the unwary.  At one gig a band member took off his shirt only to be greeted by a chorus of “put your shirt back on” from the crowd.

There are many bands out there that either innocently use sex to sell themselves, or, in some cases are in a band only because of their hormones.  It's said that there are so many male bands only because the guys in them see  this as being the way to get girls.  To what extent is this realistic? I've been fortunate enough to know a few, good looking guys for long enough to find out about their private lives and I didn't see them getting laid at every gig.  In fact many of them have steady girl friends to whom they are faithful, even though they could pull any one of a dozen or so girls who are standing in front of the stage wetting their knickers at them.

Talent

In a good team, all the band members need to have equal degrees of talent. Some bands have average musicians but one stands out – a star lead guitarist or an ace drummer. This makes up for the lack of ability in the rest, in some cases. But the best bands are all good at what they do to more or less equal degrees. But does a lead vocalist need  to have an x-factor voice? This is interesting. Some great singers don't have the best voices but they have voices that have character. The only bottom line requirement is that they can sing in tune. Sadly I have seen bands with lead singers who desperately need either to have a good voice coach or who need to find something else to occupy their time. Singing out of tune is not acceptable. It's no good blaming the stage monitors.

One of the most exciting band vocalists I know is not a good singer. He can't sing but he can put on a stunning performance and he has has genuine star quality as a front man, but there's no way I can see him as a singer. He shouts, growls and screams his way through his set, accompanied by three of the most technically exciting musicians I know and the band is always thrilling to see. In rock, there many flavours of vocalisation and I do not put down screamo bands because they appear to have opted out of singing in favour of screaming, which is a specialised art form that is very hard to do well and correctly.

Some bands are good at playing together, writing listen-able songs and also give their guitarists or drummers solo spots where they can demonstrate their virtuosity. Completely acceptable but not a requirement. Good singing, thrilling guitar work and drumming add up to an exciting package, that makes rock what it is.

When it comes to the voice, size doesn't matter; it's what you do with it that counts. Some  world-class  singers have had horrible voices but absolutely tantalising personalities; they can make bad songs into great ballads. Springsteen was noted for his rough gravelly voice.

It is said that the voice is another instrument that has to be played like a guitar. But the guitar is a standardised instrument. All guitars sound more or less the same. Guitar-heads won't agree with me but you know what I mean. When it comes to the voice however, there are huge variations of colour, timbre, range and tone.  One band I know was generally regarded as making good popular songs, which they performed well but the front man, who sang in tune and put on an acceptable stage performance, nevertheless bored me because his voice had little character. It was too plain and didn't suggest anything. Another band was generally ok at making music but insisted on always having one female lead vocalist whose voice was annoyingly penetrating.  High pitched and piercing, even though could sing in tune, I couldn't bear to listen to them. Their recordings were even worse than their live shows because of this one flaw, and they just couldn't see it.

The other thing about team work is that the band members should be able to work together effectively, particularly when off-stage, in the rehearsal room, making songs. All bands have fights now and again. Some bands fight like cats and dogs all the time but somehow manage to stay together and produce some really good music, despite the conflicts going on internally.

Young bands are particularly vulnerably to in-fighting because the band members do not have the worldly skills or experience to know how to manage differences of personality or opinion. One very young band I know well are still together and doing really well after two years, during which time huge blow ups have occurred with various members threatening  to walk out of the band because they weren't getting their own way.

There's a difference between team work and four people who have a chemistry. I have seen bands where the live performance is a joy to experience because the group of musicians on the stage feed off each other, giving out a vibe that even non-musicians like me can only wonder at and which takes music making on to the next level.

Too often bands stay firmly within their comfort zone and don't want to challenge themselves. Part of talent and a desire to reach for originality involves being ready to leave the comfort zone behind and try something new. Great bands are those who want to push the boundaries of what they are doing and reach deep inside themselves to draw on their talents to produce something that is fresh and ground breaking. Such bands will make it because the industry is always on the look out for something new.

Industry

By industry I mean hard work. Talent can easily go hand in hand with laziness. Equally, there are some bands who are not that great in the talent department, but who are succeeding because they work hard, believe in themselves have know how to manage themselves to climb the ladder.

The music industry is going through a sea change.  We have moved away from the age of the record label, where a band made it only because a label signed them. The Internet has created the infrastructure for bands d.i.y their way to a reasonable of commercial success. As I have always said, behind every successful band there is a team of people who are off-stage but contribute to the band's success.

Hundreds of bands have contacting me wanting management because they believe that a manager is going to carry them up the ladder. This is the subject of another article and I have a lot of say on this subject. Many hundreds of small bands are self-managing and actually do a good job at it. The downside of this is that while they are spending hours and hours each week booking gigs, doing publicity and artwork and coping with the huge range of things that need to happen behind the scenes, they are not concentrating on music. Some bands have at least one member who demonstrates considerable excellence at undertaking most of the duties involved in good band management. No wishing to pre-empt my future article on band management, the biggest single fault in most of the bands have I have followed, is this lack of programming. I'll come back to that point another time.

Bands with no fans.

On two or three occasions recently bands have turned up at my shows and brought no fans with them. They have sold no tickets. Needless to say they didn't get paid. These were not bad bands (musically). I don't book bad bands. But these bands did not do the work of getting people to come down to the venues, to support thier set.

There were several reasons why this happened. The band had committed to playing too many gigs, too frequently.Their fans cannot follow them to so many gigs.

The band didn't bother to push the show with their fans. They were too busy doing other things.

All thier fans were away on the day of the show.

The band was happy to play a gig and were not bothered about being paid.

Unfortunately, a band's lack of fans has an impact on the show overall. It also reduces my income as a promoter. Even though I take a very small proportion of the ticket sale to cover my costs, losing 10 tickets from one band's commitment has a detrimental impact, given that these are very small shows.

My response has been to do two things. Firstly, when I now book a band I will insist that they cannot play a show in the area of the gig within two weeks either side of the booked show.

Secondly, I will make it a condition of booking that the band has a realistic commitment to sell the required quota of tickets. I will test to see if this commitment is genuine. I might consider asking the band to buy their quota of tickets in advance (for resale) in order to get a booking. A lot of other venues and promoters do this.

My view of the live music industry is that it is funded by ticket sales.  This is as true of the unsigned band sector as it is of the big band sector of the market.

There are many bands that just want to play at gigs and are really not bothered about getting paid. Very many bands have said this to me. What they fail to recognise is that all gigs cost money to organise. They show no commitment to supporting  such costs.

I manage bands and I help to develop up and coming new bands. I spend a lot of time working with them on fan base development and on gigs programming. I do not accept that bands should pay to play. All bands should fund their activities through ticket sales (among other things) and should contribute towards the cost of any gig they play through getting fans to buy tickets.

Several bands have said to me "we just want to get out there and play as many gigs as possible".  Fine.  But they either do not or cannot support that policy with ticket sales. In effect, someone else is having to subsidise that band's gigging policy.

I fully accept that capturing, organising and retaining fans is very difficult. It takes up a great deal of time. But without ticket sales, a band is not going anywhere.

A band that draws blanks at gigs starts to get a reputation with the local venues and promoters and if they do it frequently they will find that no one wants to play them.

In my work with bands, I spend a lot of time on techniques and practices for fan  base organisation. I do this because a fan base is where the ticket sales, merchandise sales and music sales mainly comes from. For small unsigned bands, it is both about money but also about growth and development. It's not an optional extra, it comes with the job.


Subject : Bands with no fans and ticketing issues (originally posted on the Get Your Band On Myspace blog.)
Posted Date: 16 Mar 2008, 10:56

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The  first Arts in Leicestershire blog was started on 14th September 2008. It's aim was to provide a platform for readers to give  feedback and to be able to contribute to the content of the magazine. Our new blog has been created to allow content to added easily and allow external contributors to share content on the webzine site. Blogs are popular means of generating content on the Internet. Blogs are a webform in their own right. They permit a more flexible approach to content than most web sites. But it is the option of allowing comments from readers that makes them stand out as a useful means of publishing content.


All material published in this blog is the copyright of Trevor Locke, under English law. All rights reserved.

Worsening recession affects ticket sales

The economy is going into recession and Councils are raising all kinds of fees and taxes that will affect licensed premises.  Many of the small venues have reported a downturn in their trade and some have been forced to close altogether because Councils have created a massive increase in business rates and lisencing fees.


More and more pubs and bars are being forced out of the market place because there are fewer people around with money to spend on a night out and by The Government and Local Authorities wacking up fees and taxes to a ridiculous level that many just cannot afford.


The impact of this on the largeer venues is that they are now ever more strident than ever before on instisting on ticket sales. Venues we have contacted recently have said categorically that they will only book bands that can pre-sell 20 or more tickets.

Hence, a number of small bands are going to find it harder and harder to get any bookings at all. Medium bands will have to get their ticket selling ramped up to get any decent gigs.


Some venues are insisting on free entry gigs because they cannot get enough people into the bar. The only good news is that bands that can pull in a crowd are going to get bookings because venues want business and are increasinly desperate for punters.


This is not just Leicester; its all over the UK and we contact venues in all areas of the UK chasing for bookings.

However, I am sure that some bands are going to tell us that they finding a different situation. Please comment on this blog if you think you are finding a different situation in your local area.

It will be good to know what the scene is like around the country.

Leicester's live music scene - now!

Editor of Arts in Leicestershire, Trevor Locke, takes a long hard look at the live music scene in Leicester and asks: "where are we now?"

Over this year the live music scene in Leicester has been changing. The things that have been driving this change are both economic and musical. What does this mean for the bands?

Firstly, the credit crunch has made its impact. People who will go out  to gigs have less money in their pockets now than ever before. They can no longer rely on their credit cards and overdrafts to cushion their spending and if they are going to spend money on tickets, drinks and taxis then they are going to do so less often than in the past and they are going to choose what they go see, when they go to see it and how often they go out, now, much more so than when they had more money each week to play with.

Secondly, there are bands out there who are acheiving real music success. They are building up real followings and they are winning fans over. There is a core of bands who can almost guarantee to pull a crowd at nearly every gig they play. They are producing music that is genuinely popular. These are bands whose audience is not composed of family members, personal friends or college pals. There are bands who are attracting people who have no prior engagement with the band members; people who are turning up to see these bands only because they like their music. It is still the case that many new bands can pull in an audience to support them when the occasion demands it but these are composed largely of relatives and personal acqaintances of the band members. This is a volatile situation, a following that is not likely to grow, unless the band begins to take off and produce the kind of music that will appeal to "strangers", i.e. music lovers who don't know the members but who come to enjoy the music they produce.

Hence, it is now the case that it does not matter where a band plays: The Shed, Sumo, Firebug, The Charlotte ... what matters most is the line-up. Young bands now have to climb the tree by hooking up with bigger bands and getting on to their shows and playing to their audiences. All the main venues have had good nights at some time or other this year. All the main venues have seen capacity audiences and really great, memorable nights at some time or other. Equally, they have all had crap nights with tiny crowds. The Charlotte closed in January, largely because it had lost it way with regard to running successful gigs. It has re-opened under a new management who are determined to avoid the pitfalls of the past, introducing a policy that ensures that bands must bring people in to support their set. Other promoters and music managers are slowly following suit. These days you cannot afford to book just a band.  You have to book a band and a group of ticket-purchasing fans. It's a package. Bear in mind that none of the main music venues has a walk-in crowd. Leicester lacks something that other places around the UK are known to have:  venues that people go to because they like the venue and will happily stand in front of a stage to see bands they have never seen before.

Some of our venues cannot now put on gigs seven nights a week. The weekends might still hold up but week days are risky. What bookers have to do now is to book a night that will work. Failure to produce a viable line-up can easily mean a loss making night and in the present climate it takes but a few crap nights for a venue to go under. It is no longer feasible for the good nights to subsidise the bad nights. Shrinking profit margins, the absense of overdraft credit and the fierce competition of the venues network, means that venue bookers have to think very carefully before they allow a night to go ahead. They have to ensure that any night they commit to is likely to avoid a loss. This is however very difficult to achieve.

Leicester has an increasing number of gigs: even when audiences are increasingly harder to attract, there is no shortage of promoters and venues wanting to put on nights. The gig-going public (people who will go out with bands of their choice) will happily follow their bands to any venue they can get into.  But this is a highly volatile audience. If a band gets a booking at a new venue, they and their loyal followers will turn up there. But hardly any of those people will go back there, unless their band gets a return booking. Even the long established venues, like the Shed and Sumo, are not winning over customers from band bookings. People just do not decide to go back to these venues because they went their once with a band.

So if a band is good and has the right musical product, it's not about where they want to play. It's all about which line-up they need to go on to. Indeed, promoters and venue bookers frequently ask me which bands I think are likely to pull a crowd. Newbie bands often ask me which big bands they should try to hook up with in order to get a decent audience to play to.

It's not difficult to put together a line-up of the best crowd pulling bands in order to produce a gig that is likely to fill a room. I have done this a few times this year. Sadly however, it does not always work. One of the reasons why (in my experience) this has failed to work, is that bands are poorly managed.  There are bands who have pulled in quite large crowds and we know they they can pull 50 to 70 people. But they don't always do this and the main reason is that they are over-playing. They are appearing too many times for their fans to keep up with them and some of their appearances are far too close together.

My reaction to this experience (as a promoter) is to insist - in a bookings contract -  that the band can only play one of my gigs if they agree not to play any other gig where they are required to pull out their fans, two weeks either side of my planned show. If they cannot agree to this, I will not book them.

In many venues around the UK, the two week rule has become well establilshed. It's not new. It's not draconian. It's just good bookings practice. Too many venues and promoters have been let down by bands who have accepted a booking and then played two nights before the event, or even the night before the booked date. Hence, they have divided their fan base and have got one well attended gig and one poorly attended gig. This is unacceptable.

The other practice that is taking hold is the minimum ticket sale policy. This has been slated as being "pay to play". When a venue sells a slot - for a number of tickets - it is saying to a band, "look, you can play here but you have to guarantee that x number of people will buy tickets for this show". If the band fails to achieve that requirement, it will not get paid for the gig and it will not get re-booked.

I have booked bands several times on the basis of their musical quality; great bands that play top quality music. But they have not sold any tickets at all. No one has turned up to see them at that show. If they ask to get paid, they are asking the other bands, who did pull in a decent number of people, to subsidise their appearance. So if a band wants, let's say £50, to play at a show and they sell no tickets, there is only one way to pay them: take the money from the income of the other bands who have sold tickets. I for one am not prepared to do this.

These policies are flawed. A band that can command a large ticket sale can get on to line-ups with bands that are musically better than they are.  This is often the case with new bands.  Bookers rub their hands with glee when a new band asks for a debut gig because this nearly always means that a lot of people will turn up for it. That success does not always last into the second, third or fourth performance of the new band. Soon they are desperate for shows and can't sell their debut volume of tickets.

There is no guaranteed connection between the musical quality of a band and its ticket sales. There are just too many bands around to make this realistic. Live music is watered down by the very large number of bands chasing the limited number of performance opportunities that exist.

The music-going public is saturated with bands and music events. There is more choice than music lovers can easily cope with. In an ideal world, there should be either far fewer bands or far fewer gigs.  It's the scarcity value of a live music event that would drive up the attractiveness of the market. A gig is not just a public rehearsal. Some bands, however, I fear, seem to treat nights at the Shed, in particular, as an alternative to hiring a room at Stayfree and inviting a few friends in to watch.

Serious bands who have a career in mind, cannot expect to play once a week. Once a month, may be. New bands need to get out there a get what I call flying hours under their belts. In other words, a new band needs to peform often in order to get that well-oiled experienced feel to what they are doing. But, that does not justify them taking up slots at serious shows. It would be better if they did hire a room and invite their family and friends in because all of these events are simply dress rehearsals for the times when they go out and play serious gigs.

If Leicester's music scene is to survive the recession, flourish and gain the reputation it deserves, music managers must bite the bullet and start implementing serious bookings policies that will address the shambolic nights that we have seen in the past.

In particular, they really do have to start uping the stakes for out of town bands. There are a few non-Leicester bands that can pull a crowd when they come here to play. But you can count these bands on the fingers of one hand.

I have been asked dozens and dozens of times by bands from all over the UK if I can find them a slot to play in Leicester. My current response is to say, it's not about finding a venue or a date: it's only about finding a suitable lineup.  But the time good line-ups are published, however, it's often too late. The programme has been completed.

It would be aweful if Leicester's music lovers were to be denied more of the real musical treats we have had a from out of town bands, coming here to play. But very few of them have managed to sell enough tickets to cover their own costs and the majority have left Leicester with empty wallets.

Leicester is never going to get nationally big bands playing here, simply because we do not have big enough venues to offer them. That is another problem and one on which I have already written. But I know only too well that the musical life of this city requires out of town bands to come here and give us the inspiration and enjoyment of their performances. Our problem is how do we pay for this privilige? At the moment, we are getting bands coming here from all over the UK but they are doing this at their own expense. They are having to pay to play Leicester.

More follows ... including I hope your comments on what I have said so far.